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OECD report: BI means better policy

Delivering Better Policies Through Behavioural Insights

As governments around the world face increasingly complex and pressing challenges, many are applying BI (behavioural insights) to public policy. 

The OECD (or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) exists to promote economic growth, prosperity and sustainable development. It has recently released a report on how BI can deliver better policies and new approaches when it comes to the wicked problems facing governments all around the world. 

One of the many behavioural scientists working on this project from around the globe is BehaviourWorks Research Fellow, Morgan Tear.


Working with Mary MacLennan, their chapter ‘Fostering a safety culture in the energy sector’ examines how policymakers can use messenger effects, feedback and social norms to change behaviours around safety. Because it’s not just individuals who may suffer from lapses in safety standards – poor safety cultures contributed to both the BP Deepwater oil spill in 2010 and the Fukushima nuclear contamination disaster in Japan in 2011.   


Key questions around safety 

Workers in safety-critical organisations (such as oil rigs, electrical energy workers or workers from the regulators of these industries) were given a range of vignettes and asked how effective the various types of behavioural insights would be at (1) attracting attention, (2) influencing the behaviour of front-line workers, and (3) influencing the behaviour of management or the organisation overall.  


These different behavioural interventions focused on messenger effects (such as a regulator or a peer), behavioural feedback (comparing yourself against others or similar others) and social norms (both injunctive; how we think we ought to behave, and descriptive; how we actually behave). 


Some of the main findings 

While the study involves complex data sets, a few of the findings make interesting reading. Our peers affect our behaviours in many ways (fashion, what to watch, where to holiday, etc), but when it comes to safety, many workers prefer to get the message from someone in authority, like regulators. Even when peers see a safety problem, co-workers expect them to let management know so it can be shared throughout the entity from the top. 


Social norms have their pros and cons when it comes to affecting safety behaviours.  While we want to fit in with what others say and do, when it comes to safety, it’s easy to override the effect of other peoples’ approval or disapproval. Except in cultures that value clarity and avoid uncertainty, where knowing what similar others are doing (descriptive norms) is a clear and easy means of getting the message. 

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There’s also a gap in perceptions between those working inside an organisation and those whose job is regulating safety behaviours – people can overrate their safety culture simply because they have nothing to compare it with.  Regulators have a more negative perception of culture change because they know how hard it is; that’s their job. 


New approaches for delivering change 

The focus on safety in the energy sector is just one part of the overall report, which looks at policy development across four OECD Directorates: Environment, Financial and Enterprise Affairs, Public Governance and Science. 


It’s titled ‘Delivering better policies through behavioural insights – New approaches’. You can read it for yourself here.